Sunday, 28 February 2010

Cantus firmus - The Enduring Melody


Recently I posted on Michael Mayne's, This Sunrise of Wonder. Having read Jim's post on Mayne, and also Glen's on Musical Church I want to follow it up with a further book I've just read by him.

The Enduring Melody, his final book, is a journal begun at the time of being diagnosed with jaw cancer and published just a few days before his death. The bulk of the book is entitled, 'The Questioning Country of Cancer'. But there are two preceding chapters, one which is a reflection on aging, and the other, which is the theme of the book, the cantus firmus, which is the Latin for fixed melody, or enduring melody. In the introduction he says, ‘From that icy moment of diagnosis, when you know that everything has changed, I recognised ... that this would prove an unwanted but important test of the integrity of what I most deeply believed, both as a human being and as a priest: a kind of inquest on all those words spilled out of pulpits or in counselling others or at hospital bedsides. A few months earlier I had attempted to tease out what I had come to think of as ‘the enduring melody' of my life. This was the time to see how well it would stand up to the fiercest scrutiny.'

The theme comes from ancient music, plainsong, in which the cantus firmus is the basic, or fixed melody line around which counter melodies are sung.

Mayne wasn’t the first to explore this.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison writes, ‘God requires that we should love him eternally with our whole hearts, yet not so as to compromise or diminish our earthly affection, but as a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. ... where the ground bass is firm and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits. ... only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness, and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the cantus firmus is kept going. ... put your faith in the cantus firmus.Craig has done some fine work on this, some of which emerged in his Whitley Lecture.

For Michael Mayne, the cantus firmus, the enduring melody, is what he built his life on, the truths that lie not at the surface but at the deep centre, truths that have been refined and pruned over a lifetime. I'm drawn to the idea that each person is developing the enduring melody of their life. For some, the basic melody is still being written, for others there are already numerous improvisations and more being written. 

Michael Mayne speaks of Jesus Christ, ‘that solitary figure [who] stands at the heart of my own cantus firmus.’ I guess that the apostle Paul says something similar in his cantus firmus, ‘For me to live is Christ’. Glen is suggesting something similar, though helpfully in the context of community where there is enormous scope for improvisation around the cantus firmus.

4 comments:

Craig Gardiner said...

Good stuff and thanks for the comments on the Whitley ... no doubt sales will now escalate and force a reprinting

Craig Gardiner said...

ps I've been rethinkign stuff in terms of polyrhythms rather than counterpoint since attending a djembe drumming class which is great fun

Craig Gardiner said...

pps just been to Glen's blog (everything now makes sense!)and see you mentioned the Regents Vancouver talks ... If Glen doesn't snap them up I'd love a listen some time ... Council?

Geoff Colmer said...

Hi Craig! Bring a memory stick and I'll let you hear them.